Entrepreneurs Eleanor Toulmin and Sarah Last are on a mission to revolutionise poultry farming in Australia.
“According to the Australian Productivity Commission farmers need to double productivity on their farms every 15 years in order to stay profitable. This is a big ask.” Toulmin posed this fact to an audience of over 800 at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre in late May as part of Melbourne Accelerator’s (MAP) launch event. So how do we create more food, for less cost, without compromising animal welfare?
Toulmin and Last’s company, MimicTec, is one of 10 startups selected by MAP for 2017. The duo, who met while studying the Master of Entrepreneurship at the University of Melbourne’s Wade Institute in 2016 are developing a product which mimics what young chicks need from a mother hen, reducing stress in the chicks and improving feed conversion or growth metrics.
From an initial prototype that was chicken size, MimicTec’s ‘mother hen’ doesn’t seem to resembling a chicken at all, but the chicks don’t seem to mind.
Improving welfare “Animal welfare is what gets me up in the morning,” reflects Last, MimcTec’s CTO who has a background in animal health science,
We’re saving farmers money and improving the lives of chickens. Consumers are telling the market they want chickens to be better cared for, and our product aims to give them that while reducing feed and maintenance costs for farmers.
MimicTec appears to be on the fast track to market, with Last deciding on the product concept in August 2016 and having only incorporated in December 2016.
While MimicTec have also recently secured over $100,000 in seed funding from Scale Investors and are working with Milawa Free Range Farm to test their product, Toulmin and Last were still keen to join MAP, wary that many new startups suffer from only working ‘in’ their business, not ‘on’ their business.
Accelerating their business: “We’re really excited about MAP,” says Toulmin, “working alongside these great people who have such a vision and drive and being around that is just so infectious.”
Beyond camaraderie, thinking about what would make their product successful in the long-term, Toulmin and Last pinpointed three key areas they felt an accelerator program would help them improve:
1. Delivering value: With only a finite customer base of around 1500 poultry farms in Australia, MimicTec wanted to gain more marketing and sales expertise to ensure the uptake of their product is successful;
2. Tangible tech: MimicTec wanted easy access to engineers to help them develop a refined and durable product, and knew MAP had strong engineering connections though the University of Melbourne;
3. Real relationships: They were keen to develop skills around accessing and maintaining their potential customers within Australia and overseas.
Gender isn’t the problem
Asked about what it’s like trying to break into the male-dominated agtech business as women, the pair were generally positive, “Occasionally we’ve got a cooler reaction at a meeting” says Last “and I think is it because we’re young? Or is it because we’re female? Sometimes, I think (being young and female) can actually help differentiate you.” Toulmin chimes in.
“Farmers and entrepreneurs are both problem solvers by nature, so we approach our meetings with an attitude of ‘tell us about your problems, we’ve got this product, what do you think about it, how do you need it improved’, in a way, the farmers we work with are like our co-developers.”
What is their advice for other women interested in founding a start-up or working in agribusiness?
1. Start with you: “I think women entrepreneurs can often worry about female imposter syndrome” says Toulmin, an ex-Strategy Consultant, “One of the main lessons I took out of the Master of Entrepreneurship is that entrepreneurship is a skill set that you can develop.
There’s an entrepreneur in everyone, not just the stereotype of a ‘white-male tech genius’, and the degree gave me the confidence to explore who I was and what skills I needed to become an entrepreneur.”
2. You don’t have to go it alone: “I didn’t realise how valuable a co-founder would be until I had one, I really couldn’t have got to this point alone” says Last. “Of course we argue sometimes and occasionally we’ve even go to our mentor for kind of ‘couples counselling’, but mainly we get along really well.
Maybe we’re too in-sync, given we’ve already rocked up for meetings in the same outfit a few times already”
3. Work your network: “I feel incredibly lucky with the connections we’ve made,” says Last. At the Wade Pitch night in December, they met Laura McKenzie, CEO of Scale and one of the event judges, who thought their idea was a great fit for Scales investors leading to their recent seed funding success.
Regulars at the University’s weekly Farmers Market, Last asked if the organisers could put them in touch with any poultry farmers, resulting in their now strong connection to Miliwa Free Range Farm. “You never know where your contacts could lead.”
4. The early bird: “On a lighter note, I’d say if you want to work in agribusiness you definitely have to be prepared to wake up early, really early and make sure you have a full tank of gas” laughs Last.
This article was originally published in Newsroom, by the Faculty of Business and Economics, The University of Melbourne.